HELENA — A federal judge on Tuesday struck down Montana's campaign contribution limits, just three weeks before the state's primary.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell said in an order the state's contribution limits in state law are unconstitutional.

The move is reminiscent of 2012, when Lovell also ruled the state's contribution limits unconditional. That stood for a week before the limits were reinstated by a federal appeals court.

This time, groups including American Tradition Partnership PAC, Montana Right to Life PAC and Lake and Beaverhead Counties Republican Central Committees filed to halt the limits before the June 7 primary. On Monday Lovell canceled a bench trial set for next week and said he would decide the case on briefs and arguments filed by the state and attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl on Tuesday afternoon said the order ends limits set by a 1994 initiative. Motl said that means he's required to reinstate the limits that were in place before then, adjusted for inflation.

The new limits on what individuals and political committees can give in the 2016 election are, including general and primary:

  • $1,990 for governor/lieutenant governor.
  • $990 for other statewide offices.
  • $530 for District Court judge, Public Service Commission and state Senate.
  • $330 for all other elected offices, including the House.

However, GOP attorney Matthew Monforton said the limits put in place Tuesday constitute "defiance yet again by Commissioner Motl of a federal court order. He should anticipate renewed litigation if he continues to give the finger to Judge Lovell."

Monforton said Lovell's ruling should mean there are no caps on contributions from any source. There could be other individuals or political groups that may join new litigation if Motl doesn't lift the limits.

Motl emphasized trying to create stability in this election cycle in light of the order. He called for reasonable self-control and respect and said he expects people and committees to honor the new limits.

He hopes to avoid "the chaos that came into Montana's elections in 2012," when then-candidate for governor Rick Hill, who was also a plaintiff in the 2013 suit, took in $500,000 from the state Republican Party during the week without contribution limits.

The Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices won't try to stay the court's order on individual or political committee contribution limits, Motl said. That's an effort to give people, candidates and committees "stability."

The Commissioner's office started contacting candidates Tuesday afternoon to notify them of the change. The ruling lifted all limits on campaign contributions from political parties to candidates.

Motl didn't rule out an appeal on political party contributions, but wouldn't give a timeline of when that could happen. In 2012, his office filed an emergency repeal, and the limits removed then were restored in nine days.

Republican governor candidate Greg Gianforte will stick to the new caps, said campaign spokesman Aaron Flint.

"We are abiding by the campaign limits that have been in place, and are calling on the other candidates to do so. We are also asking Commissioner Motl to clarify what this ruling means moving forward with immediate instructions."

Gianforte is running against Gov. Steve Bullock, whose campaign called the Tuesday ruling "wrongheaded." Spokesman Eric Hyers said it is an opportunity for Montanans to unite and demand fair elections. Bullock's campaign said it will adhere to the contribution limits in place before the Tuesday ruling.

Those limits are lower than what’s in place now. Per election, individuals and political action committees could give $660 to candidates for governor, $330 to a candidate for other statewide office and $170 to a candidate for other public office.

“Going forward, we challenge every candidate in Montana to follow the legal limits for all contributions, including their own contributions,” Hyers said. “Montana cannot afford to go back to the days of the Copper Kings when millionaires and billionaires could literally buy elections. We need one set of rules for everyone."

Then-Attorney General Bullock filed a stay to appeal Lovell's 2012 ruling. He called on Attorney General Tim Fox to do the same this election. Fox's office said Tuesday it is still reviewing the decision and did not have a comment on how it will proceed.

In his ruling, Lovell wrote that defendants including Motl, as well as Fox and Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, did not prove the cap on donations helps prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of such.

The judge also said the limits don't let candidates amass enough money to wage effective political campaigns.

Motl had previously threatened to but never filed an enforcement action against Hill after he spent the $500,000 from the state GOP in 2012.

Monforton said he's been assured Hill will no longer be at risk of action from Motl's office.

"This is a good day for Rick and Betty Hill, who have been harassed for years by an overzealous commissioner for simply doing what a federal judge told them they could do."

Lovell wrote: "The court remains at a loss as to how Commissioner Motl will prove that Hill could be liable for accepting the alleged illegal contribution after ... (the court) declared the contribution limits unconscionable and unenforceable," Lovell wrote. "The commissioner's prosecutorial grounds in that matter appear shaky at best and, more likely, non-existent."

Limits are necessary, Motl said, because a 2012 initiative passed by 74 percent of voters that prohibited corporate contributions and expenditures in state and national elections. "They want the campaign limits to be reasonable and in the reach of the average Montanan," he said.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.